Better Sleep in the Golden Years?

A large survey finds that the elderly are more satisfied with their sleep habits than are people in any other age group

People in their 80s rarely complain of sleep problems.
People in their 80s rarely complain of sleep problems. Image from Flickr user *akeg*

We’ve all caught grandma or grandpa catching some z’s after a big meal, or while watching TV, or apropos of nothing at all. Popular wisdom says that older people tend to have restless sleep and more fatigue during the day.

That may be true, but a huge survey published today in the journal Sleep finds that elderly people are more satisfied with their sleep habits than people in any other age group.

The data was gleaned from a large survey, called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, in which researchers called random people in the United States who were 18 years or older and asked them about their sleeping patterns, as well as more general questions about about race, income, education, mood and general health. The new sleep study included responses from more than 155,000 participants.

Some of the answers were fairly predictable. For example, people who are sick or depressed tend to report more sleep disturbances and daytime fatigue. And middle-aged women—who could be stressed from the demands of raising children or the hormonal fluctuations of menopause—have the most sleep complaints.

The most surprising result concerned the elderly. When the data were adjusted to account for sickness and depressed moods, it showed that the best sleep reports come from men and women over age 80.

The researchers offer a few possible explanations. It could be that young people are losing sleep because of their increased reliance on technology, or from longer work hours. Alternatively, people who live past 80 could to be more resilient to the effects of chronic disease (which often affect sleep) than are those who die in their 60s and 70s.

As people get older, they tend to lower their standards of what it means to be healthy. So it could be that these seniors simply have a rosier opinion of their sleep patterns than other, more objective measures suggest. For example, in 2004 a large meta-analysis of people aged 5 to 102 years found that overall sleep time drops with age, by about 10 minutes per decade. So when you see grandma taking a nap, let her sleep. She might wake up feeling refreshed—or, at least, content.

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